Coventry Peace Campus beefs up with proposal for millennial housing

One year ago, Artful Cleveland was charging ahead with a plan to create an artist hive in Cleveland Heights, akin to 78th Street Studios in Detroit Shoreway, or the Screw Factory in Lakewood. Founders had recognized that while Cleveland Heights has the highest concentration of artists in all disciplines in the region, it didn’t have the kind of destination that a collective of working studios could become. And research showed such a thing could be a great asset to a city. They had a vision to become part of the Coventry Peace Campus—a cluster of non-profit organizations housed in a former school near Coventry and Euclid Heights Boulevard. They were raising money, and building out studios. The first artists moved in, and they hosted grand opening festivities in March, 2017. The future looked bright. Then in May, the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school board, which owns the building, announced plans to sell it to the City of Cleveland Heights, which would then sell it to a developer. At first, all the tenants—nine small non-profits, including Artful—were put on month-to-month leases. In June, they were told they would not have to vacate until June 2018. It buys some time, but does not change the fact that Artful had raised  and invested $50,000 dollars in their vision for the city’s cultural and economic landscape, which will be completely lost if a developer the city chooses has a vision that doesn’t include them. Now in an act of self-preservation, the tenants of Coventry Peace Campus are vying for their own place at the redevelopment table.  –editor



Modern single-family homes are the newest idea for the Coventry Peace Campus, a 6-acre site in Cleveland Heights that has become quite a bone of civic contention.

Campus tenants support a proposal to develop 22 low-rise, low-density homes on Washington Boulevard and Euclid Heights Boulevard, streets that border the Coventry Village. ARTFUL, an arts collective with ambitious plans, is a key tenant in the former Coventry School.

The aim is to make the campus a center of arts, civics and culture that will both boost and benefit from the commercial area to the north and abutting residential neighborhoods. Adding a contemporary residential component would make the site uniquely attractive, backers say. Details of the tentative housing project surfaced at an outreach meeting Sept. 27 and came up again before Cleveland Heights City Council Oct. 2.

Supporters hope to meet with members of the council, City Manager Tanisha Briley, city planners and zoning officials and the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District for further discussions. “I know they’re coordinating all the times of the stakeholders, and they’re trying to have a meeting next week,” council member Melissa Yasinow said Oct. 4. No firm date has been set.

Coventry-Peace Campus crowd-Carlo-Wolf-Photo

At that Sept. 27 meeting at the former school, architect Paul Volpe–a member of the fledgling campus board–told an enthusiastic audience of more than 100 that his proposal for for-sale homes targeting millennials and empty nesters is an “idea” for transformation and expansion of the site.

The campus anchor is the old Coventry School, almost fully occupied by 9 nonprofit tenants including ARTFUL, Ensemble Theatre, Lake Erie Ink, Family Connections, Future Heights, and Reaching Heights. All their directors—all women—spoke, citing affection for the building and its collegial atmosphere.

The city and school board, citing fiscal anxiety, want to sell the facility, however. It hasn’t been a public school since 2006 when, according to Peace Campus proponent and neighbor Frank Lewis, its closing was “divisive.”

Coventry-Peace-Campus-ARTFUL's Shannon Morris, left, and Brady Dindia

“It’s a lot more fun to be involved in something that seems to have overwhelming community support,” Lewis said of Volpe’s proposal.

In May, school officials asked the city to take over marketing of the building and switched tenants to month-to-month leases from annual renewals. ARTFUL, with 13 of 16 studios rented, has been there a year, Ensemble has been there nearly seven.

The following month, city officials moderated their position, giving tenants until the end of June 2018 while the city assembled requests for proposals from prospective developers. At a Sept. 25 meeting, however, school board members Jim Posch and Eric Silverman noted that with the current tenant roster, the district is not breaking even financially, according to a report. They also suggested the departure of Urban Oak school and Village Child Care will only exacerbate the district’s deficit and subsidy.

To overcome that, the Coventry Peace Campus is set to be a developer itself.

“Our vision of the site as a true campus for arts, culture and education is exciting for Cleveland Heights and beyond, and [it] deals head-on with the needs of the city and the organizations located in the school, but more importantly, the needs of the residents,” said Brady Dindia, president of the ARTFUL board and a co-leader of the Coventry Peace Campus effort.

Taking its cues from 78th Street Studios and the Screw Factory, West Side arts hives, ARTFUL aspires to be the East Side’s first such arts business incubator.

Dindia said artistic communities create jobs and boast higher child welfare, lower crime rates and higher academic performance. The arts sector “is a larger portion of our national GDP than agriculture and transportation,” she said, noting arts and culture constitute a $699 billion industry representing 4.3 percent of GDP.

Shannon Morris, executive director and co-founder of ARTFUL, noted the school board and the city have reached a memorandum of understanding in which the city would buy the building for $1, and then, upon selecting a developer, sell it to that developer. Morris said the Coventry Peace Campus opposes “an outside developer coming and tearing this down,” adding no such developer has been identified.

According to Volpe and project attorney Lee Chilcote, a builder of these “pocket neighborhoods” is yet to be selected and the capital budget remains to be set. The three-story homes the Cleveland Heights architect envisions would feature “first-floor living” with a great room and laundry facilities and be 1,600 to 1,700 square feet. “We’re not talking about mansions, we’re talking about homes,” Volpe said, noting the inner ring suburb’s success at reclaiming vacant property with residential developments such as Bluestone and Cedarmount.

Volpe also suggested a radical remake of the old Coventry School itself, putting all of Ensemble on one floor with a separate entrance, creating a glass-walled entrance lobby, adding a gallery where “you could actually sell the art that ARTFUL’s artists create,” and expanding ARTFUL above the second floor, “the coolest space in the building,” among other changes.

“The idea is to make the place even better than it is,” he said, making the building more “extroverted and public.” While city and school officials have said the roof is problematic, Volpe said the building is in fine shape and was wonderfully built.

He said his plan is “a set of conceptions, of possibilities,” an effort to “achieve balance” regarding a “very important property that’s being pushed and pulled in a lot of different directions.”

Volpe says the “old school” is 57,000 square feet. There’s a park that is “kind of loose and undefined,” and 61 parking spaces, “which is not enough.” To replace the school building would cost more than $10 million and to tear it down would cost $400,000, he said, noting it’s 95-percent occupied.

There would be some “minor garage parking,” as well as separate lots, noted Chilcote. A 501(c)3 would own and develop the property and spin off portions for development as taxable subdivisions. “This is very preliminary,” said the project’s attorney. “We’ve done as much as we can in two months.”

Michael Ungar, a member of the city council who attended the Sept. 27 outreach meeting, said he thought the plans “were fantastic, and they’re not even fully evolved yet.

“I hope that the dialogue will continue,” he said.

“We are all stakeholders, literally and figuratively,” said Ungar, whose wife sits on the board of Family Connection. “The city is just a moniker for the residents of the city. It’s theirs. We’re just the trustees. It doesn’t belong to me or other council members.”

“We’re the newest tenants here,” Morris, the executive director of ARTFUL, told the Sept. 27 gathering. “We have big plans and we hope to stay in this building to make them come true.”


Update: At the end of October, with the signing of a final artist tenant, Artful’s studios became fully occupied. “We find it inspiring that there were artists willing to sign on for the last few spaces considering the uncertain future of our organization being located in this building,” Dindia said. Artful board and staff has nearly completed an enameling and letterpress studio, as well as a room to host classes, workshops, and lectures open to the community. They’ve been working with businesses, including Blick Art Materials, The Tavern Company on Lee Road, and The Grog Shop on Coventry. Plans are underway to host a holiday event, Jingle Bell Shop. In the run-up to election day, supporters were lobbying candidates.